Sarah Capes reviews the first ever ‘painted film’ Loving Vincent, at the National Gallery
Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to attend the premier of Loving Vincent, at the National Gallery. Having gathered myself after a spate of celebrity sightings, I was excited to settle in to experience the first ever ‘painted film’ in history. The film itself was preceded by a short video in which the director, Hugh Welchman, wandered through the National Gallery pointing out paintings that had inspired Van Gogh when he visited London in 1873. Knowing that we were sitting in the very building whose halls and galleries Vincent himself had perused and admired, about to watch this highly anticipated film inspired by his life and work, was quite thrilling.
The film was a painstaking seven years in the making, having been planned initially as a seven-minute short. It was Welchman’s co-Director wife, Dorota Kobiela, who came up with the idea all those years ago. It took four years for the producers to develop a technique where artists could paint over the film stills, and two years for 120 artists to paint 65,000 images, in the style of Van Gogh, that make up the hour and a half long feature film. Every second on screen is made up of twelve different paintings. These astonishing statistics alone make this film a truly unique artistic venture in itself and watching it was certainly unlike anything I have experienced before. The images are never still but seem to constantly flicker; the vivid colours, thick wild lines and distorted perspective of Van Gogh are given movement in what is probably best described as a bizarre dreamscape. I felt the visual experience was akin to a week of skiing; the way in which after days of seeing only white, all you can dream about is snow. When I left the film, I just could not shake the images from my head.
However, on reflection, I realised that the aesthetics of the film were completely intertwined with its haunting and incredibly moving narrative. Not only is it an innovative visual experience, but also it is a fresh and original investigation into the events surrounding the artist’s death; taking place a year following Vincent’s famous ‘suicide’, offering black and white flashbacks to scenes that took place during his life. It was agreed amongst fellow viewers and myself that these black and white segments not only helped distinguish time frames during the film, but also physically offered a rest for the eye after the flurries of colour and movement that were almost quite straining to watch at times.
The film follows the fictional journey of Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth), son of Vincent’s friend the Postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Armand is tasked with the hand-delivery of a letter from Vincent to Theo (Vincent’s brother) in Paris, as it was returned to the Postmaster, undeliverable. Joseph is curious as to what has happened to Theo, and wants his son to find him in the hope that Theo will have answers to the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death. Although our first impression of Armand is that of a stroppy teenager with no interest other than drinking and fighting, he soon becomes wrapped up in the life and death of the enigmatic and mysterious artist, and envelops us in his unyielding desire to discover the truth.
Throughout the film there are 94 reproductions of real Van Gogh paintings integrated into various scenes. Among my favourites is the Portrait of Père Tanguy (played by John Sessions) – the art dealer in Paris that Armand visits on his journey. Tanguy advises Armand to visit Auvers, where Van Gogh died. Armand encounters a variety of characters in Auvers, all based on portraits Van Gogh made of locals whilst he was living there. My favourite without doubt was the reproduction of Portrait of Dr Gachet. Jerome Flynn plays Dr Gachet in the film, and, for me, he stole the show. Gachet was a physician but also an aspiring artist whom Theo sent Van Gogh to stay with in Auvers in 1890, to recuperate after he was released from hospital following his notorious ear mutilation in Arles. It seems that the relationship between Vincent and Gachet was turbulent at times, and initially Armand’s encounters with the doctor are slightly unsettling, with Gachet appearing eccentric and rather sinister; we are told of his jealousy at Vincent’s artistic genius. However, as the film goes on, I found that my opinion of him changed completely, as the ‘true’ nature of his relationship with Vincent is revealed, ending in a poignant and unforgettably moving scene of Gachet at Vincent’s deathbed.
After the screening there was a panel discussion with Welchman, two of the actors (Booth and Helen McCrory), one of the film’s producers, and an artist who painted for the film. Welchman recalled how his wife had entered into a period of soul-searching during a stressful time in her life, and found solace in Vincent’s letters, where she read the phrase that inspired the entire film: we cannot speak other than by our paintings. Kobiela wanted to honour Vincent’s statement by literally making his paintings speak, move, and come to life to tell his story. She and Welchman did not make the film just for the sake of being ground-breaking or new, but to offer us a view of the world as Vincent saw it.
The majority of the acting took place in front of green screens, so that the painted backgrounds could be digitally integrated later on. McCrory, who plays Dr Gachet’s housekeeper, described the unusual experience of acting without a backdrop; not knowing exactly what the landscape or surroundings she would be placed into for each scene would look like until the film was finished. McCrory also mentioned that throughout the process of filming, not only did she learn a lot more about Van Gogh, but the process seemed to convince her that the artist was murdered, rather than having committed suicide. There are several clues in the film that suggest this might be the case, but I won’t divulge them here; you can see for yourself and make up your own mind.
65,000 paintings do not remain post-production as the majority of the canvases were re-used and painted over to create the next frame. If you see the film, try and be sympathetic towards Armand’s gaudy yellow jacket; the artists who worked on his scenes stayed true to Vincent’s palette by using Prussian Blue for the lines and shading in the garment. But as Prussian Blue is too robust a pigment be painted over and successfully covered, the artists had to remove it and repaint it each time Armand moved for a new frame. A number of original canvases from the film are available to purchase through the Loving Vincent official website, though, thankfully, prints have also been made from these, which are easier on the wallet.
The tragedy of Vincent’s sad life, the impact of his death on his brother, Theo, the stories retold by those who encountered the artist in his lifetime – all conveyed literally through the artist’s works – amount to an enduring melancholy that left me feeling genuine pity and sorrow for Vincent and many of those whose lives he entered. Yet not all is doom and gloom, as I felt glad that the stereotype of Van Gogh as the ‘mad’ artist was finally beginning to dispel, and his life and work was not romanticised but made raw. Was Vincent insane? I don’t think so. Lonely? Painfully so. Did he kill himself or was murdered? There may never be a unanimous agreement, but the investigative journey we are taken on with Armand is certainly worth the lingering sense of wonder and wistfulness offered by its culmination. The film has left me with a vivid memory of the characters and landscapes that Van Gogh knew, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.
Sarah Capes graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2011, where she completed her MA in the History of Art. She went on to The Courtauld to pursue a Masters in Curating that same year. Since then, she has worked in the London art world in various capacities, from museums and auction houses to conservation. For the last three years she has been working for a renowned Mayfair art dealer. Sarah was born in Vienna, grew up in New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the U.K. and now lives in Fulham.